Dennis Martin, front, of the Georgia Forestry Commission, and David Mullin navigate a small rapid on the West Fork of the Chattooga River in Rabun County, Ga.

Atlanta man buys 230-acre West Fork of the Chattooga River tract
New landownder vows to keep waterway open, no development

By Dan Washburn
The Times
Another chapter in the twisting tale of the West Fork of the Chattooga River closed on Thursday, April 6, as Atlanta businessman Robert D. Reid III purchased a much-publicized 230-acre tract along the river's banks in Rabun County, Ga.

According to Tom McCollum, coordinator of acquisitions at the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest, Reid paid roughly $3 million for the land, which is surrounded by the Chattahoochee National Forest. McCollum said the per-acre price was the highest ever for a sale of 200 acres or more in the North Georgia mountains.

Reid pledges to be more floater-friendly than the land's previous owners. The 51-year-old is co-owner and president of WaterMark, the Atlanta-based company that owns Perception Inc. and Dagger Canoe Co., two of the leading manufacturers in the paddle sports industry. Reid, an avid paddler and fly fisherman, also said he will never develop the land.

"I really wanted to take away the problem regarding the navigability of (the river)," Reid said. "It should be an open body of water. That waterway belongs to everybody."

Scottie Fain, Chris Henson, the late Earl Lovell and the rest of Rabun Investment Inc., who purchased the parcel for $1.86 million in 1997, drew national attention when they attempted to impede floating traffic along the river, popular among anglers, paddlers and tubers.

That action resulted in a lawsuit from the U.S. government, which claims it has the authority to ensure that visitors to the national forest can freely navigate the West Fork — a component of the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System — for recreational purposes. That case is still pending in U.S. District Court in Gainesville.

"We are working to settle that lawsuit in a nonconfrontational way with the government, conceding that it is a navigable waterway," said Reid's attorney Howard Slomka, of the Atlanta firm Sutherland, Asbill and Brennan.

Led by Lovell, the former owners contended that the river was not navigable based on Georgia law. According to court documents, they strung a cable across the river with a sign reading "No Trespassing, Survivors Will Be Prosecuted," and verbally accosted and halted would-be floaters from the banks — allegedly at times with shotguns in hand — until a court order said they couldn't, pending a ruling on the river's navigability.

"They certainly were playing the 'Deliverance' role," said Buzz Williams, of the Chattooga Watershed Conservancy in Clayton who although happy the property changed hands, will not rest until the land is owned by the public.

"If the forest service hadn't dropped the ball at least twice in previous attempts to buy it, we would have already had it. If they get off their duff and push hard this time to negotiate for acquisition, we might have a shot this time — but it will probably be the last shot."

McCollum said the government has tried since the 1960s to acquire the land, formerly the B.C. Nicholson Estate.

"Quite frankly, the government should have bought this tract a long time ago," McCollum said. "They just haven't been aggressive enough. For whatever reason, it just hasn't clicked. This is one of those that got away."

McCollum did say that the government is currently working through an undisclosed outside party to try and acquire the land from Reid. However, the government by law cannot bid above the agency approved market value, which greatly handicaps its negotiating power.

Reid said he has no current plans for the property, save for some fly fishing over Easter. However, he did add, "I think there will be a day it will be publicly owned."

Dave Jensen, district ranger at the U.S. Forest Service's Clayton office, hopes that is the case. "I feel more optimistic that we'll be able to work something out with this new owner, that we may be able to acquire some or all of the property," he said.

Until then, Williams said he will be monitoring Reid closely.

"If they turnover one shovel full of dirt, we're going to be watching them from the highway with binoculars," he said. "We're going to have erosion and sedimentation people on them like white on rice."

"There's nothing on the property," Reid responded, "and I don't plan on putting anything on the property."

See also:
Access denied: Owners, users spar over land
Climbers clamor for access to Yonah Mounain's facade
Off-road vehicle enthusiasts look for room to rev engines
Despite support, skate park plan still stalled

Dan Washburn is a sports writer for The Times in Gainesville, Ga.
Copyright © 2000 by The Times